Inside the belly of the beast: sex-trafficking in Nigeria

2014-01-26 14:00

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Tobore Mit Ovuorie went undercover to investigate the sex-trafficking industry in Nigeria and emerged beaten but alive after witnessing orgies, big money deals and horrific ritual murder

There are 10 of us at the boot camp: Adesuwa, Isoken, Lizzy, Mairo, Adamu, Ini, Tessy, Omai, Sammy and I. Within two days, two of us will be dead.

We have travelled together in a 14-seater bus from Lagos, hoping to arrive in Italy soon. We are eager to get to the “next level”, as it is called: from local prostitution to hopefully earning big bucks abroad.

But first, it turns out, we have to pass through “training” in this massive, secluded compound that is guarded by armed military men, far from any other human being and somewhere in the thick bush outside Ikorodu.

Our trafficker, Mama Caro, welcomes us in flawless English, telling us how lucky and special we are; then she ushers us to a room where we must go to sleep on the floor without dinner.

I had not expected this. We had done a thorough risk analysis: my newspaper the Premium Times, our colleague Reece Adanwenon in Benin, ZAM Chronicle in Amsterdam, and I. We put in place contacts, emergency phone numbers, safe houses, emergency bank accounts.

We made transport and extraction arrangements. Reece is waiting in Cotonou, 100km to the west in neighbouring Benin to pick me up at an agreed meeting place.

But we hadn’t foreseen this stop: this isolated guarded camp in the middle of nowhere.

The beginning

It all started in Abuja when I decided to expose the human-trafficking syndicates that caused the Aids-related death of my friend Ifuoke and many others. As a health journalist, I interviewed returnees from sex-trafficking syndicates who had not only been encouraged to have unprotected sex, but who had also been denied healthcare or a ticket home when they fell ill.

They suffered from Aids, anal gonorrhoea, bowel ruptures and incontinence. Some from conservative religious backgrounds were denied treatment by doctors in their home towns because they had been “bad”.

Life as oghogho

I advertised my wish to get to know a “madam” while walking the streets of Lagos, dressed as a call girl. It worked. I met Oghogho Irhiogbe, an accomplished, well-groomed graduate in her 30s (though she claimed to be only 26), and a wealthy human trafficker of note.

My lucky hunch to tell her that my name was Oghogho warmed her to me. She told me I looked like her little sister and treated me like a favourite.

“Don’t worry about crossing borders and getting caught”, she told me. “Immigration, customs, police, army and even foreign embassies are part of our network. You only run into trouble with them if you fail to be obedient to us.”

I knew this was true. Two of the trafficked sex workers I interviewed tried to find help at Nigerian embassies in Madrid and in Moscow, but the very embassy officials they asked for help immediately informed their pimps. They only made it back to Nigeria after developing visible diseases, including Aids-related Kaposi sarcoma.

Oghogho Irhiogbe was luckier – she owned four luxury cars, two houses in Edo State, and was building a third near Warri Airport in Delta State. Others I had met through my initial “call girl” exploits were on their way to riches, too.

Priye was set to go back to the Netherlands, where she previously worked, to become a “madam”. Ivie and Precious were happy to return to Italy. Precious had already made enough money to start building a house in Enugu, between Abuja and Port Harcourt.

Special forces

On the windy Sunday evening of October 6, I make my first contact with the outer ring of this mafia. A big party with VIPs is on; the kind an ordinary girl, or “product” as traffickers call us, are not usually invited to. But I am along for the ride as Oghogho’s favourite.

I am classified as “Special Forces”, or “ForzaSpeciale” as my new contacts say, borrowing the Italian term. Syndicates classify girls by inspecting their naked bodies. I too had been thoroughly checked by male and female judges headed by a trafficker called Auntie Precious. I had received the highest classification.

“This means that you don’t have to walk the streets. You can be an escort for important clients,” Auntie Precious told me in a congratulatory tone. Those of “lesser” classification were referred to as ForzaStrada, the Road Force.

The party is held at an opulent residence along Agunyi Ironsi Way in Maitama, Abuja. It was designed to be the festive end to a great day in which we went to church, hung out at the choicest places in town, shopped and dressed in a suite at the citadel of power in Abuja, the Transcorp Hilton.

It is more like an orgy.

Male and female strippers entertain guests, drugs are everywhere, alcohol flows unrestrained; there is romping in the open. Large bags of money change hands. Barely an hour after we arrive, Oghogho receives a big bag that is delivered to her from another room.

As we walk out, she puts the money in her car boot and smiles at me: “Don’t worry; very soon, you’ll get to receive dividend.” This “dividend” is not from prostitution and trafficking alone, but Oghogho won’t tell me what the other source is. “When you come on board fully, you’ll know.”

A retired army colonel from the Abacha era sees to it that we are not disturbed.

“He has top connections and sees to a smooth flow of the business,” Oghogho tells me.

How to pick pockets

I discover how “top” these connections are when I am taken with a group of girls to be trained as pickpockets. Our group of 10 “products” are placed at different crowded bus stops in the suburb of Ikorodu, where we must practice under the guard of two army officers, a policeman and a number of male “trainers”. The policeman – Babatunde Ajala – doesn’t bother to cover his name badge.

The operation is supervised by Mama Caro, known as Mama C, a 50-something, light-complexioned, busty woman. Her deputy is Madam Eno.

Mama C told us that pickpocketing is a crucial skill for the ForzaSpeciale: we will need to be able to steal valuables from clients. The stolen goods are added to our earnings, so we will be able to pay off our debts – or “meet our targets” – in a short time.

When I perform dismally, Eno rains abuse on me. We are all to stay at the bus stop until I steal an item from somebody. It is already 11pm. Tired, hungry and angry with me, Adesuwa, Isoken and the policeman guarding my group pick some extra pockets and hand me the items so that I can show them to Eno.

The next day, the bumpy journey to the “training camp” seems endless. My fellow products are snoozing and I battle to stay awake, wondering if we are tired or drugged. I note the bus moving off the main road somewhere around Odogunyan into thick bush. We stop at a compound guarded by armed military men.

New names

The next day starts with strip tease and lap dance training, and thereafter poise and etiquette lessons. Five other girls have arrived in the meantime. They are all graduates who are leaving for Italy fully aware of what they are supposed to do.

“If I get caught by local police, I will just tell them I was trafficked against my will,” said Gbemi light-heartedly.

“I don’t think oyinbo [white man] will believe Mama C if she says that I am there voluntarily.”

I receive a crash course in doing pedicures and manicures because I am so bad at being a pickpocket.

“You’ll be utilising these skills at my wellness centre in Italy,” Mama C says after scolding me for being lazy and testing her patience. “You will be working only on men while wearing sexy dresses. That will enable you to attract customers.”

Later, Mama C makes everyone sign a statement saying that they have willingly embarked on the journey and that they are to return certain sums as professional fees to her. No girl is given a copy of what she has signed and the amount varies inexplicably: Isoken signs for a debt of $100?000 (R1?million), but I will only have to pay $70?000.

We are told that we will receive new passports with false names and false nationalities in Cotonou. I am to become a Kenyan; Mairo will be South African. “I have boys in the Benin immigration office,” boasts Mama C.

The horror starts

A traditional “doctor” who has just arrived puts us through rites that involve checking each girl’s horoscope, and collecting some of her blood, fingernails, hair and pubic hair.

He then picks out four of us as “problematic”, saying we will bring “bad luck”. Either he is really clairvoyant or has run background checks on us because he is right about at least three. Two of us have been deported to Nigeria in the past and are possibly known to European authorities. I am number three.

What happens next is like something out of a horror movie.

As the unlucky four stand aside, Mama C talks to five well-dressed, influential-looking visitors. At issue is a “package” Mama C promised them that she hasn’t been able to deliver. The woman points at me, but Mama C refuses and, for unexplained reasons, Adesuwa and Omai are selected. We all witness the pair screaming and trying to hide in corners as they are grabbed and beheaded with machetes. The “package” the visitors came for turned out to be a collection of body parts.

The mafia holding us is into organ trafficking, too.

With all of us trembling and crying, me and the other three “unsuitable” ones are herded into a separate room. Mama C comes later to take me to yet another room for questioning.

Angry beyond measure, she whips me all night, telling me to yield information on the “forces” protecting me. “You are going nowhere,” she keeps shouting. “I have invested too much in you!”

Clearing the “spirit”

The next morning, Mama C eats breakfast while I starve: I last ate the previous morning. When she is finished, and while the “approved products” leave for Cotonou, Benin, to begin their journey to Italy, Mama C takes us four “unsuitables” to visit three new “doctors”: one in Lagos’s Agege neighbourhood, the second in rural Sango Ota village and the third in remote Abeokuta in Ogun State.

She clearly believes in traditional medicine and is desperate to find a treatment for the demons we carry.

The first two “doctors” agree with the first that I am bad news, but the third, after roughly cutting off most of my hair, declares me free from the “spirit”. The “evil spirits” in the other three girls, meanwhile, have been “beaten out of them” with dry whips.

Back at the camp, the first doctor rages at Mama C for approving me, insisting that the doctor who freed me from the spirit is a fraud.

“This girl will bring about your downfall! You will end up in jail!”

I am more convinced than ever that he possesses information, not supernatural powers. The syndicates are well connected and someone may have told him that I am not who I say I am. The “doctor” keeps repeating that “forces” are protecting me. But Mama C insists that she will not lose her investment.

Meanwhile, new “products” have arrived. The entire camp is again in the grip of fear as chilling screams indicate that some of the new arrivals – two girls and a young man I later learnt – are also murdered.

“Oghogho, I wonder what actually brought you here, I never expected a girl like you to venture into this,” says one of Mama C’s errand boys as he enters the locked room I was taken to later that night. He brings me a plate of food and seems well disposed to me.

“You found and returned my BlackBerry that I lost during one of the pickpocketing training sessions,” he explains. I had not realised the escort whose phone I found had been this boy; he had worn a cap pressed low over his eyes then.

“Other girls would just have kept my phone,” he says. “You don’t belong here. I keep wondering what level of poverty has made you endanger yourself. You don’t deserve this.”

The plate of food is all I need to get my strength back. We are scheduled to travel the following morning.

Escape

As we are about to leave, I lose my phone to the army officer. Searching all of us, he has taken Isoken’s phone already and she has pointed at me to divert attention from herself, saying I have a phone too. He takes mine at gunpoint.

I can only thank the heavens that it is dead. I had been upset because it didn’t want to charge the previous night, but the fact that it won’t switch on is my second lucky break: it has a lot of pictures and conversations saved on it that I have recorded in the camp.

The disadvantage of losing it, though, is that I can’t contact our colleague Reece, who is supposed to help me once I get to Cotonou.

All along the road to the border, police and customs officers wave at and greet Madam Eno and our head of operations, Mr James. Nigerian immigration and customs officers also greet us warmly at the border post, and enquire if there is anything in it for them today.

“Welcome, Madam! How have sales been?”

Eno: “Not much.”

“But your batch was allowed entry yesterday, so why claim you haven’t been making sales?”

Eno: “We are not the owner of yesterday’s batch of girls. We own these ones in this bus.”

“Haaa! You want to play a smart one? Not to worry, your boss will sort all this out with us.”

The officers then wave the minibus through without asking for any form of documentation.

The original plan was for me to go with the transport to Cotonou, the capital of neighbouring Benin. But I don’t want to stretch my luck any longer.

The border is usually very crowded and I plan to escape as soon as we get there. It works.

Just after the Seme border post, in front of a crowded, muddy market, I run. Merging with the crowd, I take my top off – I have another underneath it – and I cover my head with a scarf. The army officer follows, searching for me. I dive into a store and lose him.

I travel the 20km from the border motor park to Cotonou by minibus taxi. Reece – alerted by a phone call from my driver to ensure that she will be there to pay him my fare – will wait for me there.

I see a woman I recognise from her Facebook photo. “Reece?”

“Tobore!” she cries and holds out her arms to catch me. I am safe.

Read an interview with the journalist here.

»?Ovuorie is a senior investigative journalist with the Premium Times in Nigeria (premiumtimesng.com). She recently won a Wole Soyinka Prize for her exposure of criminal syndicates involved in document forgery and the sale of fake malaria nets

»?© 2014 ZAM Chronicle and Premium Times

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